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Weather put chill on US retail sales

NEW YORK — So much for new spring shorts and T-shirts. As cold weather lingered across most of the country, Americans shopped modestly in March.

US retailers reported a key revenue figure rose slightly during the month, as shoppers held back on spending because of the cold weather across the nation, particularly the Midwest and East Coast, and continued fears about the economy. Economists monitor consumer spending because it accounts for more than 70 percent of economic activity.

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According to a preliminary tally of 15 retailers by the International Council of Shopping Centers, revenue in stores open at least a year rose 1.6 percent, or 2.5 percent excluding drugstores. That was below expectations, said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the ICSC.

Revenue in stores open at least one year is a key measure of a retailer’s financial health, because it excludes stores that open or close during the year.

Weather was a factor, with March being the coldest in seven years. The comparison with last March was especially tough. Last year saw the warmest March on record, according to weather research firm Planalytics Inc.

‘‘Wintry weather conditions persisted deep into March, depressing spring apparel, home and garden, and seasonal merchandise sales,’’ said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics. Meanwhile, the payroll tax increase that took effect in January and the uncertain economy have weighed on spending, he said.

Analysts often like to combine March and April to get a clearer picture of shoppers’ habits, because of volatile weather that time of year and Easter’s movement around the calendar.

Easter tends to help stores that sell groceries and candy but costs clothing sellers a day of sales without spurring much additional spending.

Job fears have risen since the government reported hiring was the slowest in nine months in March.

Perkins expects April to be stronger, as the weather improves and customers respond to strong fashion trends such as colorful jeans and prints.

An earlier Easter, which meant one less selling day in March, will also help April results, he said. In addition, shoppers should benefit from tax refunds and falling gas prices.

The number of retailers ­reporting monthly sales figures has been shrinking. Big names like Target, Macy’s, and Nordstrom have recently stopped ­reporting.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has not reported monthly sales figures in several years. Gap Inc. is set to report after the market closes.

With the shrinking list, Costco, which posted a 6 percent gain in February, now accounts for about two-thirds of the revenue in the tally.

In total, the retailers that report monthly data represent about 6 percent of the $2.4 trillion in retail industry sales.

‘‘It’s kind of like Ryan Gosling’s SAT scores: These numbers don’t mean anything,’’ said Judith Russell, an analyst with The Robin Report, a retail industry strategy newsletter.

A clearer picture will emerge when the government reports retail sales figures on Friday.

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